A Writer’s Reflection

The composed and uninterrupted remembrance of our absolute weakness and sinfulness is truly the, par excellence, (yet admittedly peculiar) means to permanent, spiritual joy. – Dino (in the comments)

photomeReaders of this blog who stay around for a time discover that often the best “meat” is found after you crack the shell – that is, the comments often transcend the article itself. I, myself, am one of those readers. I write the articles, but I await the comments with great eagerness. There I am student as well as teacher (as are we all).

I recently spoke at a conference for writers and podcasters sponsored by Ancient Faith Ministries. I was asked to speak on the “spiritual life of creative people.” When I was given the topic, I more or less sucked wind, thinking mostly about the scattered shards of my own “spiritual life.” My immediate temptation, built from long years of habit, was to assume that expertise is the foundation of all teaching. It is the myth of excellence and competence, that thing that alludes us throughout our lives.

The truth of our mediocrity and incompetence is generally an occasion for shame. I recall the first few weeks I was in grad school at Duke. It was a highly competitive doctoral program, and I had not yet learned that I was far from the sharpest knife in the drawer. In private, I was deeply aware of what I did not know, but the adversarial debates within the seminars did not encourage vulnerability. At a cocktail party with incoming students, I engaged another new student – older even than I (which was 35 at the time). We were arguing about a few points of Anglican liturgical theology. After a few minutes he gave me my first dull knife lesson: “Actually, Stephen, you should read my book…” End of debate.

The next day my curiosity took me to the library (there was no Google back then). I discovered that he was the author of three books, two of which were pretty much the definitive works on the topic…and he was an incoming student! We later became good friends and I learned to respect him and listen carefully when he offered an opinion.

Expertise is actually a very rare commodity (my friend was a rare man). Mediocrity and incompetence are widespread (nearly universal). Fortunately, expertise is not the hallmark of the spiritual life. Were it so, almost no one would be saved.

This October will mark the 10th anniversary of Glory to God for All Things. My topic at the Ancient Faith conference made me go back and remember how this came about, and consider how it is that it continues. What I shared there seems correct. I have a very scattered brain – medically it’s called ADD. Privately, it’s called frustrating, distracting, sometimes embarrassing, and occasionally problematic. Doing anything for a protracted period of time borders on something like pain. If you share such a condition you know what I mean.

“Thinking through” something is important to me. Over the years, I found that writing is almost the only way I can think. I’ve never liked journaling, it seemed too “inward” for me. After I graduated seminary, I began writing. Around the house, the project was known as “The Book.” It never got finished, being mostly under constant revision. What it represented was my ongoing effort to “work through things.” That work had a lot to do with my later conversion to Orthodoxy. The more I “worked through” things, the more the answers came up “Orthodox.”

That process eventually showed up as this blog. I am not “working through” things on such a fundamental level, but I still find it essential for thought – occasionally even for prayer. Readers do not see how many things are written and discarded or re-written multiple times. What I did not foresee, however, was the conversation that would begin in late 2006. “Thinking through” is useful, but has its limitations when you are essentially just talking to yourself. My thoughts have been shaped by the conversation. My spiritual life has as well.

One abiding lesson has never left me: mediocrity and incompetence are not roadblocks to salvation – they are the gateway. This is essentially what Dino says above (“uninterrupted remembrance of our absolute weakness and sinfulness”). I say this in mundane terms (“mediocrity” and “incompetence”), if only because they are so mundane, and I dare not dress them up in theological finery.

On the day that I started the blog, I wrote an article entitled, “What Matters.” It was stated for my own sake, lest I take too seriously the project that was beginning. I have re-published it many times, always for my own sake. The last paragraph summarizes its sentiment:

This blog does not matter – except that I may share something that makes it possible for someone to know God or someone may share something that allows themselves to be known. This matters.

I give thanks to God that occasionally, it has mattered. Glory to God for all things!

34 comments:

  1. Father, you can be assured that you have shared many things that make it possible for someone to know God.

  2. Father Bless. Excellent post. I think in the truth of things a good teacher/leader is not the know it all but the one who facilitates others to think. The best skill ever developed is the ability to form questions that force the hearers to think and grow as they attempt to answer them. I enjoy your blog because it forces the reader to do just that…think. I have been challenged to think on subjects I otherwise may have just brushed past.

  3. Thank you Fr. Stephen for your own beautiful reflection on your ministry. It’s been a great blessing in my life, thanks to your teaching and also thanks to all you have gathered here. Dino foremost (but also all others too many to list by name) with his first hand knowledge and experience of the teachings of the contemporary Saints and Elders – I think that theory of spiritual life is only valuable if we can apply it in our life, otherwise it’s just that, a theory, and for academics and not for “potential” Saints, as we are called to be.
    These practical things are the most valuable, and you have included that reminder in the very first blog post – that only God matters, and “what matters to God matters”. It has been a beautiful “re-learning” experience for me and I want to thank you Father, and all who post here for this amazing gift.

  4. Agata, I share your thoughts and your thanks for this blog but couldn’t find the words. You said it beautifully. Thank you.

  5. I also write to sort things through, and I never liked journaling, either. I’ve always wanted someone else to read what I write and reflect on it, and even better, to engage in a conversation, as people do when they comment on a blog post. I started my own blog nine years ago this August, and in many ways it has been my salvation. Although I have over a dozen published essays, I still love the immediacy of a blog post and the interaction it allows with others. (As you know, writing can be lonely work.)

    When I started reading Glory to God, I felt a kindred spirit, although your posts are much more informed and almost always of a spiritual nature, whereas I mainly write about spiritual things in my “Faith on Friday” posts, as I reserve Mondays and Wednesdays for other topics. I don’t purport to have an Orthodox blog, and I’m certainly not a theologian. All this to say THANK YOU for writing and sharing your wisdom, your reflections, your inspiration, your struggles, your humanity.

  6. I’d like to add that I have a great blessing (at this very moment) to be among the participants of an international English language Orthodox music symposium taking place at my home parish in Minneapolis.

    As I listen to the most beautiful voices from around the world singing God’s praises together, your blog Father seems like a “literary” equivalent!

    (I think there are links at St. Mary’s OCA web site with videos and recordings. Please visit).

  7. Thank you, Father. Your blog, or more correctly “your thoughts and the thoughts of those here”, were very instrumental in leading me to Orthodoxy. And now the hard work!

    I am one of those “I know the answer to that!” people. The conversations on this blog have been a huge help in seeing my need to be silent and humble in any discussion. Ironically, this was in evidence before I came here or became Orthodox but I only saw it as an effective communication tool, not something that can lead me to God. Glory to God for opening my eyes in such a way. The communion of Christians is a powerful witness.

  8. I always look forward to the comments as well as to your blogpost, Father, not just for the questions and thoughts expressed, but also for the dialogue with you and each other in a caring community. Dino’s comments are some of the most deeply helpful and insightful ones. It’s also reassuring to read comments where people just share some of their experiences in life. Thank you for all of this.

  9. Also, thank you for this post. — “One abiding lesson has never left me: mediocrity and incompetence are not roadblocks to salvation. – they are the gateway. This is essentially what Dino says above (“uninterrupted remembrance of our absolute weakness and sinfulness”).” Disconcerting and comforting at the same time.

  10. Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for this blog and for the reminder stated in the quote from Dino and your own words “Mediocrity and incompetence are widespread (nearly universal). Fortunately, expertise is not the hallmark of the spiritual life. Were it so, almost no one would be saved.”
    Glory to God for All Things!

  11. The trick, is it not, to recognize out own incompetence without falling into despair?

  12. Michael,
    Despair, as total hope in nothing but God, is truly the inauguration of permanent sanctification.

    Where there’s anything good in any comments it’s the translating of Elder Aimilianos and some others into English and nothing else – can’t forget that!

  13. MichaelPartick,

    Thank you for your generous words. Most of the time I feel most inadequate about posting here, but sometimes one cannot keep the joy and gratitude to oneself any longer and has to try to find words to express it.

    Somehow this post by Fr. Stephen and Dino’s more recent posts have brought me to this place… I pray to God to richly bless all who come here (and will in the future find this blog) to learn how much God loves and desires us to know Him.

  14. The Deep End

    Toes feeling anxiously for the bottom,
    hands clinging to the gutter,
    lunging across the corner
    for the safety of the ladder-
    memories of the Deep End.
    It was no less frightening
    because others gracefully stroked across it
    or recklessly cannonballed closeby.
    Someday
    I knew I would learn
    the mechanics
    that would allow me
    to interface with the depths
    and yet,
    I knew I would always be out of my element.
    Ah, theology.

  15. Glory to God for “Glory to God for all Things!” 🙂 I know I have been very blessed to have discovered your blog, Father, fairly early in its existence. I, too, found in you very much a “kindred spirit” (alas, right down to the ADD experience!), though, unlike me, you actually do know what you are talking about when you reference important thinkers, writers and Fathers from your classical education, having dealt with primary sources! But, of course, the real kinship we all experience here is that formed by the Holy Spirit. Your introduction for me to St. Silouan, Elder Sophrony and others has been a real lifeline for me for nearly my whole Orthodox life now.

    Byron, I’m one of those “I know the answer to that!” people, too. Your observations about the effects of participating on a blog like this (helping me see my need to be a better listener and humble in a discussion) are right in line with what I experience, too. I’ve learned so much from others here.

  16. Mark I enjoyed your post. It reminded me of Walter’s words to Donny in the “Big Lewboski”–“Donny you’re out of your depth”. This is how I feel also!

    Fr Stephen, I would not have begun reading any Orthodox blog (I wasn’t a blog reader) until my spiritual father recommended yours. And having begun, I can’t stop. What’s more, if anyone had told me that I would be writing comments to a blog two years ago, I would have thought it highly unlikely–it just wasn’t in my ‘nature’. The fact that I came to read your blog I can attribute to my spiritual father, but the inspiration to keep reading and even to write comes directly from you and your commentators. Thank you and thank you all!! Glory to God indeed for all things.

  17. Reading all the above brought back memories. At the age of 18 I wrote in my high school yearbook that my ambition in life was to be a missionary. I promptly forgot what I had written during the ensuing 30 years. However God didn’t. And yes He gently led me into doing just that for the next 24 years. But what I remember was sitting down with my boss to be and telling him, ” I am in over my head. I have never lived in a big city, I don’t know Spanish, I am not a formally trained librarian. All I know is that I am supposed to do this.” He replied, ” Good! Now you will have to depend upon God.” I never forgot those words and I hope I never do.

  18. Hello Father:
    I do enjoy reading your blog and I always find something there that helps me or terrifies me. The feeling you describe when you met your Anglican friend, and that startled awareness, when you discovered he was the author of three books on the subject you just debated with him, when you are suddenly overcome with your own ignorance and arrogance and there is egg….all over your face, I know that feeling well. Humility is so unlike the many other words that start with “H”; hell, haughty, hatred, hellacious, harm, and harsh. (as you’ll probably note from that little word-ly rabbit trail, I have some ADD like you. But please pray for me as I pray for you and as we both trudge the mercy road to Happy Destiny.

  19. Good morning Fr. Stephen.
    I’m not a blogger, nor writer just a reader.
    I’m blessed to have been reading all these posts, and yes… By reading the comments I have learned much. Thank you.

  20. Father,

    A few years ago, four things happened in a very short time and led me to Orthodoxy. Finding your book (and reading it in a single sitting) was one of them. Thank you!

  21. I can definitely understand writing as thinking because I also suffer from ADD and do the same thing. I also tend to write essays and books that lead me in certain directions rather than journaling, but fortunately these remain unpublished. Of course, it is not all about discursive thought (as you rightly note throughout your blog), but in terms of putting things down cataphatically — using the term loosely — blogging can be helpful. Despite private disagreements and/or misunderstandings, I appreciate your efforts, and am impressed by the ten year run!

  22. A beautiful post. Thank you very much. Two (brief) observations:

    I appreciate the way you link “weakness and sinfulness” to “mediocrity and incompetence”—echoing your frequent admonition that sin is not a legal category, but a question of our relationship with the great I AM.

    I also salute the proposition that the process of writing can be a splendid way to work something out. If you set out to write something with any degree of care, you are forced to articulate your thoughts, choose your words more carefully, and just slow down. (The dismal state of the comments sections of most blogs does not rebut the proposition, but confirms it: most such comments are not written with any degree of care). You, and your commenting readers, are to be commended.

  23. I, too, write to think. My blog allows me to write and think. I consider it “embroidery” that doesn’t stop, even if I change stitches and colors as I continue in some sort of spiral motion. I am glad to know you “think” this way too as I so enjoy your writing.

  24. Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Blessed be the Lord that has given you the strength and patience to keep up with this blog and continue writing for a decade!
    I myself like writing and I think I know what a great effort is required……deleting this, adding that, changing this phrase……eeemmmmm, what was that term that seemed so appropriate and now it just doesn’t come to my mind, and that author that I was refering……..and the list can go on.
    With all the other engagements in your life, to be able to keep such a wonderful blog is such a beautiful witness of “synergia”………I’m almost 100% sure that I’ve not spelled that word correctly…..:-))…….
    What I’ve appreciated the most is your wonderful predisposition to answer promptly on questions asked during comments. I love that you are actively involved in the “commenting” process……..
    With all the thank you’s and compliments above, I believe that you Father know that you “are supposed” to keep writing for another 10 years at least…….:-))…….

    God bless you,

    Sophia

  25. Fr Stephen, this is the wrong question and the wrong medium to ask, but what are the “down sides” of blogging and this “comments community”, do you think?

    Personally (and very lamely), this blog and occasionally one or two others, take the place of t.v. for me (I quite that box 15yrs ago). I’m always wrestling with the ‘escapist’ and addictive side of my blog reading. Also, the addictive side of my amateur interest in theology… it’s like eating a big bag of chips, or the rush of downhill biking to other people.

    I think of the monks who have shown me another way: they are always doing real, physical things. hands in soil, on wood, candles. Prayer (of course a whole body act too) and conversation only with flesh-and-blood people.
    I asked the abbot once about blogging (he thought this was ‘facebook’- they really have no idea). I said it does give people a sense of community and belonging. He just said, “Mark, dont kid yourself. It isn’t real!”

    Wrong question, wrong medium. I know.
    But how much is there to this?
    Is our ‘online connection’ just a sort of artificial fill-in-the-gap for desperate lack of real relationship in our lives?
    It cant be just that; God works through everything. But I cant shake the feeling that our spiritual path should somehow involve labouring to blog less or comment less, be online less, etc. Focusing more on the real, tangible world in embodied contact and relationship (without delete buttons, and with more than text and pixel).
    I sometimes worry that we are sating an apetite by being online that should find it’s propper fulfillment elsewhere.

    I have wondered if it’s analogous to online dating: I used to think the idea mad, but now it’s ubiquitous. And how wrong is it? Well it’s certainly a symptom of broken community, but people gotta meet somehow. So we have this laughable modern technology called social media, etc….
    And marriages emerge out of it.
    But isn’t there a better way than online dating sites? Even if we cant live the better way, shouldn’t we at least admit something’s gone very wrong that we need them?

    I’ve asked the wrong question in the wrong place. I accept the consequences in the response I may receive. 🙂
    I fear I’ve listed too many criticisms to hear any real concerns from yourself… Be assured that I am deeply grateful for your blog, and I love the comments! The problem is mostly me I know. No need to defend the blog, but I wonder if you ever wonder about the down sides- these I listed or others you may see?
    -MB

  26. Mark Basil,
    I think people can draw wrong conclusions about blogging because it’s so fast and uses extreme technology. But, essentially, it is letter-writing. And if that’s a problem, then we’re lost with St. Paul.

    There is a problem with any individual spending too little time with others and with creation all around them. I am frequently asked about “how I write as much” as I do. People assume a lot of wrong things when they think about it. I seriously answer that I have ADHD (I really do). I write and read in 10 minute bursts, here and there over the course of the day, a procedure ideally suited to the infirmity of my brain. If someone were spending extended time in front of their computer, I would urge them not to (unless they are at work). I don’t.

    I have been blessed this past year as I’ve traveled and spoken across the country to meet a number of persons who comment frequently (I need to get to England to meet a few others as well). It certainly helps to have that human contact as part of the “letter writing.” It has been suggested by a number of folks that I create a retreat sponsored by the blog. Ancient Faith is interested in making that happen. We’ll see.

    But, again, I suggest that this be filed under the heading of “letter writing” (it’s nothing more). That has a long pedigree within the faith. It has advantages, too. I’ve written over 2,000 articles in the past 10 years, all of which are still available. My “collected letters” are thus available long before my death. 🙂 There have been over 50,000 comments, a ridiculous number. Around 10,000 of those are mine. It’s interesting how things add up over the years.

    I take great consolation in the consistently reported phenomenon of people being inspired to explore Orthodoxy by actually visiting a Church. I also am encouraged that the Orthodox correspondents here are pretty much all deeply involved in their parishes. It is not “internet” Orthodoxy.

    It seems to me that there is a strange disdain for the internet – that books are somehow superior (as if Mein Kampf had never existed as anything other than a blog site). The internet is an amazing piece of technology, capable of great good and great evil. That’s par for the human course. As for me, I seek to only use my powers for good. 🙂

  27. Thinking of blogging and comments as writing is helpful, thanks.
    I spend very little time online actually- but I do also ‘binge’, and I tend to come to the blog at the wrong times (say, instead of doing the dishes 🙂 )
    I think my own negativity comes mostly through the lens of my personal passions. I’m an alcoholic who has trouble believing others can drink sanely.

    I’m also a teacher, and I know not how it all comes together but I can say that the internet is a profoundly destructive presence in the lives of most students. Like their “handhelds”, it has become a way to never be still, quiet, un-stimulated.
    Something about the medium seems to be correlated with diminishing attention span too. Expectations to be entertained, and to learn in a few lines of text all there is to know, come with the medium. Boredom with nature is connected to this, and I would add a note of both easy voyeurism and exhibitionism too.
    Interestingly just a few days ago I mused out loud to my teenage boy that the comments section in his youtube videogaming videos seem strange to me. It struck me as no-filter ‘online personas’ who know nothing of the others they interact with, but blurting out whatever comes to mind just because it comes to mind. I said it was like a stranger walking past a conversation, and just suddenly speaking into it as if he were one of the group.
    My son disagreed but my wife walked by, chuckled, and said, “dear, that’s exactly what I think of you and your blog comments.”

    I still wonder if the internet as an “amazing piece of technology” as you said, is really so neutral? On the balance I wonder how much destruction and anti-prayer it brings to peoples’ lives? It seems a bit like saying semi-automatic guns are just a neutral piece of technology because some people might use one for hunting.
    This blog is like the “hunting” use of the gun- but I think I might still say on the balance I wish there was no internet at all for the havoc it wreaks in so many lives (mine being the closest, the children I try to teach being next).

    I will say vis. the monk’s comment: I really suspect he was thinking of and thus speaking to social media in his critique that community there is “not real”. I am much more critical of Facebook, for a whole other set of reasons.
    The same monk blessed one of his most gifted spiritual children to write a blog and to podcast, afterall! (I’ll even link it, as it’s the other blog I bother to read with regularity: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/prayingintherain )

    I will take this blog, and the comments, as letter writing.
    I am prone to addictive and escapist engagement with this letter writing, but that’s part of my own disordered mind (not adhd, more like manic-depressive really).

    Peace;
    -Mark Basil

  28. Mark Basil,
    People in our culture, married to the passions as they are, rarely do anything sanely or well. We are children, buffeted to and fro. But, whenever someone comes to their senses, and begins the life as we have received it in Christ, then things can begin to become sane – even the internet.

  29. I’d like to thank all of you here for this blog. Specially to Fr. Stephen, for this wonderful and real, astonishingly real experience that is to read these posts and these comments. But… that would be too little, it could not express the whole picture.

    ‘Glory to God for All Things’ has saved my life from deep spiritual abysses for far many times.

    I was received into Church through chrismation from a wicked and distorted maked-up version of Roman catholicism and I was warned that if I wanted this stuff to be real, I needed to be a real Orthodox Christian. That was a life-change for me but it worked out well enough for only a little while. Time passed, temptations came and I became somewhat detached from the Church. Not for real, y’know, I was there, attending the Liturgy from time to time, fasting here, praying there, nice and neat, but… deep inside, it was like something has died within my heart.

    I loved to say that it was Dostoevsky’s work that ‘converted’ me to Orthodoxy. Even that he was my friend, well, all that could be true. But that did not stop me from falling. This blog here did. You did so, no less than many of your commentators. How often Dino and Michael Bauman saved this soul from despair.

    Today, after many other falls and recoveries, I feel I finally understood some truths that were written here. I am not important. I can not hope to have access to any illumined and once-and-for-all last-conversion that would lead to an unwavering saintly life without failures, regrets and sufferings. Things are not going to become easier. In fact, even this truth… there’s really nothing in it that will guarantee I’ll stop falling. I won’t.

    I keep believing in you guys, that I can’t be saved alone, that the life of a christian is a lifetime of suffering, that there are only two persons in hell, myself and Christ, there, abiding with me, supporting me and the inner hell I carry in my passions, my sins, my wicked thoughts. And I believe continually that all these truths are the more real the most they are part of a single whole, and a whole that is deeply concrete as it is the expression of a true living of the evangelical faith.

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for everything you did for me. For everything you do, and will remain doing.

    Thank you, brothers and sister in Christ, for this sharing of your life.

    I’m not a good commentor, my English is a living and ogresque disaster, my soul is easily enraged, filled with envy, pride, as my facebook timeline can show you. Even so… even without knowing me, or not knowing me very well: you all are very, very important to me. I thank God for All Things, and this blog is one of the most precious, a gift I am surely not worthy of.

    Thank you.

  30. Caio,
    Thanks be to God for His kindness and His mercy. I share what God has given and how I fail. That we are all being saved together is such an encouragement and joy. God keep you!

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